June 11, 2008
Last February 12, Lawrence King, a 15-year old 8th grader, was murdered at his middle school in Oxnard.
He was in the school’s computer lab when 14-year old Brandon McInerney walked in and shot him at least twice in the head. King was unconscious when he was brought to the hospital and was declared brain dead the next day. He was taken off life support on February 14.
King had publicly come out as gay in the weeks before his murder, and he frequently violated gender roles by wearing make-up and jewelry to school. He was regularly teased by a group of male students that included McInerney. By some accounts, King teased and flirted with McInerney and some of his other tormentors.
McInerney is scheduled to be arraigned tomorrow in Ventura County on a charge of premeditated murder. The charge includes a penalty enhancement because the murder has been classified as a hate crime.
Among the issues likely to be raised in McInerney’s arraignment and trial are:
- Whether he should be tried as a juvenile or, as Ventura County prosecutors intend, as an adult. He turned 14 — the minimum age at which a juvenile in California can be tried as an adult — on January 24, just weeks before the murder. In April, a coalition of 27 sexual minority and transgender rights groups urged that McInerney be tried in juvenile court.
- Whether the Court will consider neuroscience data suggesting that adolescents engage in impulsive behavior because their brains have not completely matured. According to the Ventura County Star, McInerney’s defense attorney hopes to use such research to argue that he should be tried as a juvenile.
- Whether school officials are partially to blame for not having dealt more proactively with the tensions between the two boys. This argument will almost certainly include assertions that Lawrence King should have been deterred from violating gender norms and being openly gay. This, in turn, is likely to spark discussion about the rights of sexual minority and gender-nonconforming youth to be safe in their schools.
It seems less likely that the trial will address broader questions about sexual stigma, which creates a cultural climate in which children, adolescents, and adults are routinely subjected to harassment and bullying if they violate conventions of gender and sexuality. That climate affects everyone, regardless of their own sexual orientation, because anyone can potentially be perceived as nonheterosexual. The wish to avoid being labeled as gay can lead individuals to enact sexual stigma against others through ostracism, ridicule, discrimination, and even violence.
Dr. Karen Franklin, one of the few researchers to have published original data on antigay behaviors and the perpetrators of antigay crimes, has posted an excellent discussion of these and other aspects of the case on her forensic psychology blog.
June 4, 2008
According to a news article this morning by Howard Mintz of the San Jose Mercury News:
The California Supreme Court today rejected a bid to freeze last month’s ruling legalizing gay marriage, paving the way for same-sex couples to begin walking down the aisle as soon as June 17.
Moving swiftly to remove legal uncertainty, the court turned away a request from gay marriage foes to stay the ruling until after the November election, when voters will consider a ballot measure that would change the state Constitution to again outlaw same-sex weddings. The secretary of state earlier this week qualified the initiative for the November ballot.
The justices were divided 4-3 on whether to rehear their earlier decision, the same split that unfolded when the gay marriage case was decided in May. Conservative organizations, joined by 11 other states, asked the court to reopen the case, a move opposed by civil rights groups, San Francisco city officials and Attorney General Jerry Brown.
The Court’s action may have important consequences for public opinion in California which, according to a recent Field Poll, already supports marriage equality.
A considerable body of research shows that heterosexuals are more likely to have positive feelings toward lesbians and gay men when they have close personal relationships with sexual minorities. It is also likely that knowing a friend or family member’s same-sex partner further enhances positive attitudes. And those favorable attitudes may well translate into a commitment to support policies that favor equality.
Thus, attending a friend or relative’s wedding to a same-sex partner this summer may lead many heterosexual Californians to decide to vote against the constitutional amendment in November.
I’ll discuss this idea at greater length in a future post.
UPDATE (June 6): In response to a request from the City of San Francisco, the California Office of Vital Records today announced that all California counties may begin issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples at 5 pm on Monday, June 16.
December 13, 2007
Quarantine: Enforced isolation or restriction of free movement imposed to prevent the spread of contagious disease. (American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 4th edition).
Last Saturday, the Associated Press revealed Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee’s responses to questions about AIDS and homosexuality during his 1992 campaign for the US Senate. On the topic of AIDS, Mr. Huckabee stated:
If the federal government is truly serious about doing something with the AIDS virus, we need to take steps that would isolate the carriers of this plague…. It is difficult to understand the public policy towards AIDS. It is the first time in the history of civilization in which the carriers of a genuine plague have not been isolated from the general population, and in which this deadly disease for which there is no cure is being treated as a civil rights issue instead of the true health crisis it represents.
According to a Sunday AP story, Huckabee stands by his 1992 statement.
“I still believe this today,” he said in a broadcast interview, that “we were acting more out of political correctness” in responding to the AIDS crisis. “I don’t run from it, I don’t recant it,” he said of his position in 1992. Yet he said he would state his view differently in retrospect.
When Huckabee expressed his opinion in 1992, scientific research had identified the human immunodeficiency virus as the cause of AIDS and it was well understood that, unlike many other communicable diseases, HIV could not be transmitted through casual social contact.
That message had been strongly reinforced the previous year when Los Angeles Lakers superstar Earvin “Magic” Johnson publicly disclosed his HIV infection. Indeed, in its November 18, 1991 issue that featured Johnson on the cover, Sports Illustrated included a special “For Kids Only” page that tried to explain the news to readers 12 and younger. Roughly half of that article stressed that HIV isn’t spread through casual social contact. After listing the many ways in which AIDS isn’t contracted, it summarized the message:
The truth is, AIDS is a disease that’s hard for young kids to get. It’s almost impossible for any kid to get AIDS from doing everyday things such as going to school. (p. 46)
There was no credible medical or public health argument in support of quarantining people with AIDS in 1992. Rejecting calls for quarantine and similar punitive measures wasn’t a matter of being “politically correct.” Rather, it was based on sound evidence about the nature of HIV.
Nevertheless, a substantial minority of the US public shared Huckabee’s view. In a 1991 national telephone survey that I conducted with funding from the National Institute of Mental Health, 34% of US adults agreed with the statement, “People with AIDS should be legally separated from others to protect the public health.” (By 1999, only 12% of survey respondents expressed such sentiments.)
What was behind this support for quarantine? For some people, it reflected an unfounded belief that AIDS could be easily transmitted. Their support for quarantine was part of a general fear of contact with HIV-positive individuals.
Such misapprehensions and fears are still around. A 2006 Kaiser Family Foundation national survey found that more than one third of Americans still didn’t know that HIV isn’t spread through kissing, and nearly one fourth didn’t know it can’t be spread by sharing a drinking glass. More than one fifth of the Kaiser survey respondents said they would be uncomfortable about having a coworker who is HIV-infected, and 30% of parents in the sample expressed discomfort at the prospect of their child having a teacher who is HIV-positive.
For others, however, support for quarantine was less about fear of HIV infection than it was about using the AIDS epidemic as an opportunity to express their preexisting prejudices against lesbians and gay men. In analyses of survey data from the latter half of the 1990s with my UCD colleague, Professor John Capitanio, I found that most heterosexuals continued to associate AIDS primarily with homosexuality or bisexuality, and this association was correlated with higher levels of sexual prejudice. In addition, although everyone who contracted AIDS sexually was blamed to some extent for becoming infected, gay and bisexual men were blamed more than heterosexual men and women. Moreover, sexual prejudice was correlated with both misconceptions about HIV transmission and discomfort with HIV-infected people.
This linkage of AIDS-related stigma and sexual prejudice highlights the relevance of Mr. Huckabee’s 1992 survey response on the topic of homosexuality:
I feel homosexuality is an aberrant, unnatural, and sinful lifestyle, and we now know it can pose a dangerous public health risk.
I can’t say whether Mr. Huckabee’s support for taking unnecessary punitive measures against people with AIDS was fueled by his negative attitudes toward homosexuality. However, sexual prejudice apparently has led many Americans to respond in a similar manner.
The fact that Mr. Huckabee is standing by his 1992 comments is disturbing in light of the continuing danger that HIV poses to gay and bisexual men in the United States. HIV infections appear to be increasing among young sexual minority men, the generation too young to have experienced the ravages of the epidemic during the 1980s and 1990s. Those men have reached sexual maturity during an era when homosexuality remains stigmatized, federal law explicitly delegitimizes same-sex relationships, and HIV researchers are advised to delete words pertaining to gay men and homosexuality from the abstracts and titles of their federal grant applications if they hope to be funded.
This situation recently led to a call for a new commitment to combating the spread of HIV among men who are gay, bisexual, or involved in sexual contact with other men (MSM). Writing in the Journal of the American Medical Association, three prominent AIDS researchers stressed the urgent need for leadership from public health officials and within the sexual minority community. Among other actions, they stressed the need to:
… call for the end of stigma toward MSM, which may mitigate the internalization of homophobia leading to sexual risk behavior. This need is particularly critical within racial and ethnic minority MSM communities that bear the stigma of homosexuality along with the discrimination faced by these minorities. Political leadership is also needed to advocate for legal domestic partnerships as a way to promote stable, longer-term MSM relationships. (Jaffe et al., 2007, p. 2413)
Unfortunately, even with such leadership, the prospects for a renewed commitment to implementing effective programs to stop the spread of HIV are bleak as long as serious contenders for national office still believe that quarantining people with HIV was a reasonable idea in 1992.
# # # # #
For the Associated Press article about Mr. Huckabee’s 1992 questionnaire responses, see A. DeMillo. (2007, December 8). Huckabee wanted to isolate AIDS patients. San Francisco Chronicle.
For the JAMA editorial, see H. W. Jaffe, R.O. Valdiserri, & K.M. De Cock. (2007). The reemerging HIV/AIDS epidemic in men who have sex with men. Journal of the American Medical Association, 298, 2412-2414.
For more discussion of research on the link between sexual prejudice and HIV-related stigma, see G. M. Herek & J. P. Capitanio. (1999). AIDS stigma and sexual prejudice. American Behavioral Scientist, 42, 1130-1147.
September 13, 2007
The last two of Scotty Joe Weaver’s murderers have pleaded guilty.
Weaver was a popular 18-year old gay man in the southern Alabama town of Bay Minette, as recounted in the independent documentary film Small Town Gay Bar. Members of the local gay community reacted with shock when his charred body was found several miles from his 2-bedroom trailer home.
On July 18, 2004, Weaver had been beaten, cut, and strangled to death in his trailer. Some accounts reported he was nearly decapitated. The murderers were his roommates, Christopher Gaines and Nichole Bryars Kelsay, and Gaines’ friend, Robert Porter.
According to the Baldwin County District Attorney, “Weaver and Porter never got along because Porter had problems with Weaver’s homosexuality….” An entry in Porter’s court file noted that “Porter was asked if his participation in the murder was because Weaver was gay,” to which Porter replied in the affirmative.
After the killing, the three murderers drove around town while discussing how to dispose of Weaver’s body. They eventually took it to a remote trail off a country road, placed it face up on a blanket, urinated on it, and then set it afire. The body wasn’t discovered for four days.
Weaver’s murder evoked a sense of deja vu in Alabama where, five years earlier in Sylacauga, 39-year old Billy Jack Gaither was murdered in a crime that bore many resemblances to Weaver’s killing. On February 19, 1999, Gaither was kidnapped, his throat was cut, and he was beaten to death. His body was thrown on a pile of tires and set afire. Two men were eventually arrested: Steve Mullins pleaded guilty to capital murder and Charles Monroe Butler was found guilty by a jury. Both were sentenced to life in prison without parole.
One week ago, on September 6, Robert Porter pleaded guilty to killing Scotty Joe Weaver and was sentenced to two consecutive terms of life imprisonment. Today, in a plea bargain, Kelsay pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 20 years in prison.
Gaines pleaded guilty to capital murder last May and was sentenced to life in prison without chance for parole.
Overkill in Antigay Murders
The brutality that characterized the murders of Billy Jack Gaither and Scotty Joe Weaver isn’t unusual in killings of sexual minority victims. In a 1980 research paper, sociologists Brian Miller and Laud Humphreys reported findings from their study of 52 antigay murders whose descriptions they found through archival sources. The researchers noted the “gruesome, often vicious nature” of the crimes, which were considerably more likely to involve stabbing, compared to murders in the United States as a whole, and which frequently showed evidence of overkill — wounding far beyond what would be required to cause a victim’s death.
Miller and Humphreys noted,
“Seldom is a homosexual victim simply shot. He is more apt to be stabbed a dozen or more times, mutilated, and strangled. In a number of instances, the victim was stabbed or mutilated even after being fatally shot.”
Corroboration for this observation comes from another study. Michael Bell and Raul Vila, two Florida forensic pathologists, compared the autopsy reports of 67 male homosexual and bisexual homicide victims with those of 195 randomly selected male heterosexual victims. Each victim’s sexual orientation was determined by police reports. The two groups were matched for age and race.
Consistent with the Miller and Humphreys study, the researchers found:
- The homicides of homosexual and bisexual men were objectively more violent than murders of heterosexuals.
- Stabbing and other sharp-force injuries were the most common cause of death among the homosexual and bisexual victims, whereas gunshot wounds were the most common for the heterosexual victims.
- The bodies of homosexual victims, on average, evidenced more injuries from blunt weapons, more fatal stab wounds, and injuries to more areas of the body than the heterosexual victims.
- Homosexual and bisexual men were more likely than heterosexual men to have injuries in the face, head, neck, back, arms, and legs.
- The percentage of cases with multiple causes of death – overkill – was greater among the homosexual and bisexual victims, although the difference was not statistically significant.
There are probably many explanations for the high levels of violence that often characterize antigay attacks. For example, overkill and related forms of brutality may indicate the extent to which sexual minorities are dehumanized in the minds of perpetrators. When attackers regard their victims as less than human, they’re unlikely to feel any inhibition about brutalizing them. Such denigration can ultimately be traced to the stigma that is attached to homosexuality in our culture.
The phenomenon of overkill also suggests that many perpetrators of antigay crimes experience extraordinarily high levels of emotion during the attack, which is expressed through extreme violence.
Research by Dr. Dominic Parrott, an assistant professor of psychology at Georgia State University, provides some insights about these emotions. He conducted a series of laboratory studies that examined the linkages among anger, sexual prejudice, and antigay aggression.
In one study, heterosexual male college students watched a sexually explicit video — half were randomly assigned to a video of two men in a sexual situation, whereas the other half watched a heterosexual couple. The participants’ levels of anger were measured before and after they viewed the video. Among the men who watched the male-male video, increased feelings of anger were strongly associated with high scores on a measure of sexual prejudice (which had been administered earlier). For men who watched the heterosexual video, the correlation was near zero.
Next, each man participated in a competitive task with a male opponent, which included opportunities for the winner of each round to administer minor electric shocks to the loser. Half were led to believe their opponent was gay. Dr. Parrott detected a strong relationship between the intensity of shocks administered and levels of sexual prejudice, but only among the men who both watched male-male erotica and then competed against a (presumably) gay male opponent. Similarly, the intensity of shocks was correlated with levels of anger only in that group.
Thus, among men who were exposed to male-male sexuality and placed in a situation where they could aggress against a gay man, levels of sexual prejudice and anger were strongly associated with levels of aggression. This association was absent among men who were exposed to heterosexual sexuality or who believed they were competing against a heterosexual opponent.
In a separate, complementary study, Dr. Parrott and his colleagues found that the link between sexual prejudice and anger derives from straight men’s experience of negative emotions in connection with exposure to male homosexuality. In that study, once again, feelings of anger were strongly associated with sexual prejudice among men who viewed a male-male erotic video, but not among those who saw a heterosexual video. Moreover, watching a male-male video caused highly prejudiced heterosexual men to feel high levels of anxiety which, in turn, triggered their feelings of anger. Thus, Dr. Parrott concluded that increases in anxiety and related negative emotions following exposure to male-male sexuality may be a catalyst for heightened anger among prejudiced heterosexual men. If such men subsequently encounter a gay man, that anger can lead to aggression.
Generalizing from Dr. Parrott’s findings, we can speculate about the psychological underpinnings of antigay violence outside the laboratory. In some cases, perhaps prejudiced heterosexual men experience extremely negative feelings (including anxiety) as a result of simply being around a man they believe is gay. Perhaps those feelings are even more intense if the situation makes the gay man’s sexuality salient (or maybe some heterosexuals always perceive gay men mainly in sexual terms). Those feelings might cause prejudiced straight men to interpret the situation in ways that foster an increase in anger — even to the point of feeling rage. Given the right circumstances (including, perhaps, the disinhibiting effects of drugs or alcohol), they might express that rage through extremely violent acts against the gay man — perhaps even overkill.
This account leaves several questions unanswered. For example, why do some heterosexual men experience such strongly negative feelings around gay men whereas others don’t? What about other types of violence, such as straight men’s attacks on lesbians? And what about violence that results from factors other than prejudice, such as peer pressure or the perpetrator’s need to assert his masculinity?
I’ll address some of these puzzles in a future posting.
The murders of Billy Jack Gaither and Scotty Joe Weaver weren’t included in FBI annual hate crime reports. Like a dozen other states, Alabama doesn’t count antigay murders or other crimes based on the victim’s sexual orientation under its hate crime statute.
# # # # #
Brian Miller & Laud Humphreys’ study, “Lifestyles and violence: Homosexual victims of assault and murder,” was published in 1980 in Qualitative Sociology (vol. 3, pp. 169-185).
Michael D. Bell & Raul I. Vila’s study, “Homicide in homosexual victims: A study of 67 cases from the Broward County, Florida, Medical Examiner’s office (1982-1992), with special emphasis on ‘overkill,’ ” was published in 1996 in the American Journal of Forensic Medicine and Pathology (vol. 17, #1, pp. 65-69).
The studies by Dominic Parrott and his colleagues were published in 2006 in Aggressive Behavior (“Sexual prejudice and anger network activation: Mediating role of negative affect,” vol. 32, pp. 7-16) and in 2005 in Psychology of Men and Masculinity (“Effects of sexual prejudice and anger on physical aggression toward gay and heterosexual men,” vol. 6, pp. 3-17).
September 3, 2007
The events surrounding Senator Larry Craig’s resignation last week provide an opportunity for considering some social science insights about sex in public places, sexual orientation, denial, and prejudice.
The Tearoom Ritual: Solicitation vs. Entrapment
Laud Humphreys’ 1970 book, Tearoom Trade: Impersonal Sex In Public Places, provided the first systematic account of men who engage in sexual acts in public restrooms, colloquially known as “tearooms.” (The book was based on Humphreys’ doctoral dissertation in sociology at Washington University in St. Louis, and received the prestigious C. Wright Mills Award from the Society for the Study of Social Problems.)
As Laura Mac Donald noted in her Sunday New York Times Op-Ed piece, Humphreys’ research revealed that tearoom sex is a highly interactive ritual. The participants are just that — participants, who actively signal their interest with a variety of silent and subtle gestures that typically escape the awareness of unsuspecting restroom users. Participants are well aware of the danger of being arrested or attacked, and don’t try to force themselves on anyone. It’s a consensual ritual that excludes those who are unaware or unwilling.
All of which raises suspicions about the actions of both Sen. Craig and the undercover airport police sergeant who denied entrapping him. It’s difficult to imagine that anyone could inadvertently become involved in the tearoom ritual, or that a participant would persist in signaling another man without some indication of the latter’s willingness. As Laura Mac Donald commented in the Sunday Times, Humphreys’ findings
“suggest the implausibility not only of Senator Craig’s denial — that it was all a misunderstanding — but also of the policeman’s assertion that he was a passive participant. If the code was being followed, it is likely that both men would have to have been acting consciously for the signals to continue.”
“Gay” vs. “Homosexual”
If Sen. Craig was indeed a willing participant, is he gay? Homosexual? These words have been used interchangeably in speculation about Sen. Craig’s sexuality. Although they are often equated in popular parlance, they have somewhat different connotations.
Homosexual usually refers in a purely descriptive manner to same-sex desires and sexual behaviors, whereas gay refers to an individual’s social identity as a member of a larger culture of men and women with similar identities. Some writers have also distinguished between “a homosexual” (one who simply engages in same-sex activity or wishes to do so) and a gay person (one who embraces his or her sexuality as a defining feature of the self, and identifies with the larger community of gay and lesbian people).
Prof. Humphreys’ research showed that many men who engage in tearoom sex are heterosexually married (54% in his sample) and don’t identify as gay, or even homosexual.
Thus, absent any affirmation of the label from Sen. Craig, characterizing him as gay seems off the mark. His consistent antigay stances throughout his political career, coupled with his public self-identification as a heterosexual, are not consistent with being gay.
This doesn’t preclude him having same-sex desires or engaging in homosexual behavior. Maybe he is secretly “a homosexual” or maybe his private thoughts and behaviors qualify him as “a bisexual.” But neither status is a part of his public identity.
Denial: Conscious vs. Unconscious
Armchair psychoanalysis is a popular sport, so it’s not surprising to hear speculation that Sen. Craig has been in a psychological state of denial about his homosexuality. Maybe so, but anyone who hasn’t spoken directly with Sen. Craig about his innermost thoughts and feelings is not in a position to make this call.
There’s a much simpler explanation for his denial, namely, that the stigma attached to homosexuality remains strong throughout the United States, especially in places like Idaho. Awareness of that stigma motivates many heterosexuals to take steps to publicly establish that they’re not homosexual. They avoid gender nonconformity, don’t touch friends of the same sex, verbally assert their heterosexuality, and even perpetrate acts of hostility and violence against people whom they perceive to be gay. Closeted homosexuals sometimes engage in such conduct to protect their cover.
These actions aren’t the result of unconscious defense mechanisms. Rather, they are conscious strategies for avoiding the labels of gay and homosexual. We shouldn’t equate a public, fully voluntary and conscious denial that one is gay or homosexual with private self-deception or unconscious repression.
Heterosexual vs. Homosexual Transgressions
Why have Republican politicians reacted so differently to the actions of Sen. Craig and to those of Louisiana Sen. David Vitter, who recently admitted to having used the services of female prostitutes?
Some have explained the discrepancy in terms of pragmatic political considerations. Sen. Craig represents a reliably conservative state with a Republican governor (who will almost certainly appoint another Republican to take his place), whereas Sen. Vitter hails from a state with a Democratic governor. Thus, keeping Sen Vitter in office while dumping Sen. Craig represents a safe strategy for the Republicans.
I don’t doubt that such a calculus has played a role in shaping GOP reactions to recent events. However, we can’t discount the importance of sexual prejudice. Sen. Vitter’s conduct violated his marital vows and broke laws against prostitution but, for most heterosexuals, a man having sex with women doesn’t conjure up feelings of revulsion. Sen. Craig’s actions in the airport didn’t even result in sex and wouldn’t have involved prostitution, although they presumably would have broken his marriage vows. But they have evoked a much more negative reaction.
The difference, of course, is that Sen. Craig would have been having sex with a man, whereas Sen. Vitter’s indiscretions were with women. Moreover, Sen Craig was arrested in a public restroom, a setting that evokes thoughts of bodily elimination. The combination of male homosexuality and public toilets arouses the emotion of disgust in many heterosexuals, what is sometimes called “the ick factor.” Indeed, last Tuesday on MSNBC, presidential candidate Mitt Romney characterized Sen. Craig’s behavior as “disgusting.”
The ick factor is an interesting component of sexual prejudice, one that I’ll discuss in a future entry.
* * * * *
Relevant Reading: Public Sex/Gay Space, a book of essays reexamining Laud Humphreys’ Tearoom Trade was published in 1999 by the Columbia University Press (edited by William Leap).
Update: Dr. Karen Franklin’s “In The News” forensic psychology blog for September 4 has some more insights based on Laud Humphreys’ study.
Update (September 15): For another perspective, check out “If Larry Craig Were Gay” on YouTube.
November 14, 2006
If we could convince Rev. Louis Sheldon that being gay isn’t a choice, would he stop attacking sexual minorities?
In an interview with The Jewish Week, the Christian Right leader recently acknowledged that he’d known about Rev. Ted Haggard’s homosexual behavior months before it was publicly disclosed:
” ‘Ted and I had a discussion,’ explained Sheldon, who said Haggard gave him a telltale signal [of his sexual attraction to men] then: ‘He said homosexuality is genetic. I said, no it isn’t. But I just knew he was covering up. They need to say that.’ “
Apart from raising questions about his complicity with Rev. Haggard’s ongoing deception, Rev. Sheldon’s comments illustrate a pattern that has been well-documented in the United States: In general, antigay heterosexuals assert that homosexuality is a choice. By contrast, unprejudiced heterosexuals are likely to believe that sexual orientation is inborn or otherwise not chosen.
What, if anything, does this pattern mean for efforts to eliminate sexual prejudice?
It’s often assumed that a cause-and-effect relationship is operating here — that heterosexuals will become less prejudiced if they can be convinced that being gay isn’t a choice.
In fact, most gay people in the US don’t experience their sexual orientation as a choice. In my own empirical studies, I’ve found that the vast majority of gay men and most lesbians report having little or no choice in this regard. (I’ll discuss these data further in a future posting.)
Yet, the notion of organizing anti-prejudice campaigns around a “we-didn’t-choose-to-be-gay” theme sparks philosophical and political debate. Such arguments are outside my purview as a social scientist. Based solely on empirical research, however, this plan is problematic for several reasons.
First, many heterosexuals’ beliefs in this realm aren’t internally consistent. If someone regards homosexuality as a choice, you’d expect them also to believe gay people can change their sexual orientation. Conversely, those who think it isn’t a choice should believe that people can’t change. But the data only partly conform to these patterns.
In a 1999 national telephone survey I conducted, more than 1200 heterosexual adults were asked whether they believed being homosexual is something people choose for themselves or something over which they have no control. A bit later in the survey, they were asked their opinion about what proportion of gay people can stop being homosexual if they want to do so. Half were asked these questions about gay men, the other half were asked about lesbians.
Overall, 47% said homosexuality is something men choose for themselves, and 57% expressed this belief about female homosexuality.
As expected, most respondents who said being gay is not a choice also believed that few (if any) gay people can stop being homosexual — roughly 72% expressed this opinion about gay men, and 76% about lesbians.
But it was a different story for those who said homosexuality is a choice. Only 50% of them believed most or all gay men can become straight, and only 43% expressed this opinion about lesbians. Many believed that fewer than half of homosexuals can change (27% said this about gay men, 34% about lesbians).
I’ve asked similar questions in subsequent surveys, with the same results: Many heterosexuals who believe being gay is a choice nevertheless say most gay people can’t choose to stop being homosexual. This contradictory pattern suggests that believing homosexuality is chosen might not be about facts or logic, at least for some people.
There’s another problem with the idea that convincing heterosexuals that homosexuality isn’t chosen will reduce their sexual prejudice. Such a plan will only work if beliefs about choice are actually the basis for heterosexuals’ attitudes toward sexual minorities. However, the data about choice beliefs and sexual prejudice are largely correlational, which means they don’t necessarily reveal a causal relationship. Even if one factor does cause the other, we can’t be certain which comes first — beliefs about choice or prejudice.
The chain might actually begin with prejudice. After all, conservative Christians base their attitudes on the argument that homosexuality is sinful. To be a sin, homosexuality has to be a choice. Otherwise their antigay hostility looks less like moral rectitude and more like bigotry. So perhaps many heterosexuals with antigay attitudes say homosexuality is chosen as a way of justifying their preexisting prejudice.
Research relevant to this hypothesis has been conducted by Dr. Peter Hegarty, a Stanford-trained social psychologist who is on the faculty at the University of Surrey in England.
Dr. Hegarty observed that beliefs about choice and the immutability of sexual orientation weren’t as closely linked with public attitudes toward sexual minorities in England as in the USA. In a series of studies, he found that beliefs about choice were strongly correlated with sexual prejudice among American students, but not among English students.
In further data analyses, he divided the participants into two groups: (1) those who perceived statements that homosexuality is unchosen and unchangeable to signify tolerant attitudes toward sexual minorities, and (2) those who didn’t perceive such a connection. He found that choice beliefs were correlated with prejudice only in the first group.
Dr. Hegarty interpreted his findings as indicating that heterosexuals may construct their beliefs about choice “to fit their sexual politics rather than the reverse.” Insofar as they understand beliefs about choice to express a particular political viewpoint (no choice = progay; choice = antigay), they use them for just that purpose. Some say homosexuality is chosen to express an antigay stance while others express a progay position by saying it’s not chosen.
Yet another possibility is that the choice-prejudice linkage might result from the causal influence of some third factor, such as heterosexuals’ personal contact with sexual minority people. In another survey I conducted in the early 1990s, I found that Whites (but, interestingly, not Blacks) harbored much less sexual prejudice and were much less likely to regard homosexuality as a choice if they personally knew one or more gay people. Presumably, those relationships reduced their prejudice and gave them an opportunity to learn their friend or relative’s ideas about the origins of her or his own sexual orientation.
In summary, we don’t yet know why beliefs about choice are correlated with sexual prejudice. One may cause the other, or perhaps both result from a third factor, such as personal contact with gay people. The data we have don’t support the notion that convincing heterosexuals that homosexuality is inborn or otherwise not a choice will cause them to be less prejudiced. If anything, it appears that stating a particular belief about choice may be a way of justifying one’s preexisting antigay or progay attitudes.
This is essentially the position that Rev. Sheldon took when he dismissed Rev. Haggard’s private comments about the genetic roots of sexual orientation as something “they need to say.” What he didn’t note is that, just as much and perhaps more, he and his followers “need to say” that homosexuality is a choice.
* * * * * *
Dr. Hegarty’s article, ” ‘It’s Not a Choice, It’s the Way We’re Built’: Symbolic Beliefs About Sexual Orientation In the US and Britain,” was published in 2002 in the Journal of Community and Applied Social Psychology, vol. 12, pp. 153-166.
For further discussion of Revs. Sheldon and Haggard, see Timothy Kincaid’s posting on ExGayWatch.com
October 11, 2006
Happy National Coming Out Day.
October 11 is the day set aside every year to remind gay, lesbian, and bisexual people about the importance of coming out, and to remind heterosexual people how they can support their sexual minority family members and friends in living open, honest, and fulfilling lives.
This year, the Human Rights Campaign and PFLAG (Parents, Family, and Friends of Lesbians & Gays) have partnered in a campaign called Talk About It. As the title says, the goal is to encourage sexual minority women and men to discuss their experiences with their heterosexual relatives, friends, coworkers, and acquaintances.
Toward that end, HRC and PFLAG have created a A Resource Guide To Coming Out, which provides information and advice for sexual minorities, and A Straight Guide to GLBT Americans, which is designed for heterosexuals who want to support and assist their gay, lesbian, and bisexual loved ones. Both guides are available on the HRC Web site.
This campaign gets it right — in many ways.
Coming out is tremendously important for sexual minority individuals. While concealing one’s sexual orientation can be highly stressful, being out of the closet is often associated with better mental and physical health. Not only does being open about one’s sexual orientation eliminate the need to be constantly vigilant and secretive, it also creates opportunities to get help and emotional support from significant others in the face of society’s prejudice against sexual minorities.
Moreover, coming out plays a major role in reducing sexual prejudice. For heterosexuals, knowing someone who is openly lesbian, gay, or bisexual often leads not only to a better relationship with that person, but also to more positive feelings and less prejudice toward sexual minorities in general. As I’ve discussed in previous posts, compared to other heterosexuals, straight people with gay and lesbian friends and close family members tend to be less prejudiced against all sexual minorities.
However, simply knowing that a friend or relative is gay, lesbian, or bisexual doesn’t necessarily reduce a straight person’s prejudice. It’s also critically important to talk openly. In my own research, I’ve found that the heterosexuals with the lowest levels of sexual prejudice are those who not only know someone who is gay, lesbian, or bisexual, but have also spoken directly with that person about what it’s like to be a sexual minority.
But many sexual minority adults don’t discuss this aspect of their lives with family members, friends, or coworkers.
In a recent national survey, I found that a majority of lesbians and gay men in the US consider themselves to be out to their immediate family members. However, substantial numbers never speak about lesbian and gay issues with their parents or siblings. A similar pattern holds in their relationships with other relatives, coworkers, and straight acquaintances. Bisexual adults are even less likely to talk with straight people about their sexual orientation and how it affects their daily lives.
Of course, coming out can be risky, and talking about one’s sexual orientation is often difficult. Here’s where the HRC/PFLAG project is right on target. The Talk About It guides offer practical suggestions to assist sexual minorities and straight people alike in getting those conversations started.
So today, on this National Coming Out Day, do something positive to fight sexual prejudice. Have a conversation. Talk about it.
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